B.C.'s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province's northeast communities are affecting human health.
Health Minister Terry Lake said Thursday that a report, which has been on his desk since last fall, is still being studied by several departments in government and he hopes to release the results "soon."
But Independent MLA Vicki Huntington says the suppression of data looks like a cover-up from a government that wants nothing to stand in the way of its ambitions to secure a new liquefied natural gas sector.
"Northern British Columbians want to know whether the current regulation of the oil and gas industry does or does not protect their health. The government has the information and has so far refused to release it," she told the legislature.
Ms. Huntington has been pushing for an investigation since she first met with concerned residents in the Peace River region in 2011. The government has maintained that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe, but the large number of new wells being drilled in the region has created additional pressure to answer questions about the potential health impacts.
She said her office filed a freedom of information application that produced no results. After 86 days of waiting, she was told she could not have even the raw data, much less the conclusions, because the information could be harmful to the financial interest of a public body.
The government released a report in 2012 that compiled the concerns of residents who believe their health problems, including asthma, bronchitis and cancer, are linked to the oil and gas activity around them. The follow-up report is meant to assess if there is a scientific basis for those concerns, and the government also promised to review whether its current regulations around the industry could be improved to better manage human health risks.
"I want to see whether the data show if the public concern is justified," Ms. Huntington said.
The Health Minister would not promise to release the raw data. However, he said he will make the summary of the report public once all the relevant ministries have had a chance to respond internally. There are at least five ministries involved.
"We have applied scientific principles to analyze the possible health, operational and regulatory issues with oil and gas development," he told the House. "The recommendations are being reviewed, and the different ministries are being briefed. We hope to be able to release that report in the very near future."
In an interview, Ms. Huntington said she is disturbed that the province has allowed a huge increase in development in the region without any cumulative impact assessment.
"It's a backward way of doing business and an unprofessional approach to the major resource demands of our time," she said.